Thursday, 31 December 2009

Carry on Campaigning – my 2010 resolutions

This is what I resolve to do in 2010:

Defend sheltered housing

Continue to campaign against the axing of sheltered housing wardens – in Barnet, where it is being carried out by the nasty Tories, and nationally where it is being carried out by the nasty Tories and nasty Lib Dems – not forgetting that it’s the fault of nasty Labour in the first place for removing the ring fence from the Supporting People budget.

Barnet’s Tories, predominantly the woman who is now leader of the council, Lynne Hillan, thought this would go through without too much opposition – anger, yes, but not actual opposition. They were wrong, there has been a vigorous campaign led mainly by Barnet’s own David Young, plus Sheltered Housing UK (SHUK) and Barnet Community Campaign (BCC) and Barnet trades council.

And, with a little help from Judge Milwyn Jarman QC, the move to axe has now been ruled ILLEGAL. Barnet council’s only recourse, if they want to persist in making these cuts, is to appeal the legal decision. Are they politically hard-nosed enough – in other words, sufficiently NASTY - to do it, especially with the council elections looming?

Future Shape of Barnet council

Continue to insist that Barnet residents should shape their own future, not have a budget airlines model of council service delivery foisted upon them. The trades council and BCC will seek residents’ views, and debate the issues raised by the Tories’ proposals, for example, to fast-track planning applications where applicants are prepared to pay a bit extra. We will press the Tories to specify what they regard as core services and what as extras that residents will have to pay more on top of the council tax they already pay to receive.

Cut the social roots of the far-right

Combat the threat posed by the far-right BNP, EDL and others. Campaign for better public services, housing and jobs for all, in place of a vision of society where those at the bottom must fight among themselves for the basics. The UK is a rich country – we only need to distribute the wealth, the power and the decision-making more evenly. Racism is an ignorant ideology; we need to argue against it, but also to fight the social rot in which far-right movements can grow.

Personal goals

Exercise more; sort out finances, yadda, yadda, yadda... Happy new year to you all!

Monday, 28 December 2009

1989-2009 - truly an anniversary to celebrate

It started with a trade union? The Polish Solidarnosc (Solidarity) trade union was founded during strikes in the Gdansk shipyard in 1980-81 and continued underground after being repressed. In 1988-89 it played a vital role in ending the Communist regime in Poland.
I think socialists - and you should know by now that I am one - need to say where they stand on 1989, the year the Berlin Wall was torn down, the clearest symbol of the end (almost) of east European and Russian Communism. The most recent and possibly grimmest 20-year anniversary was that of the execution, on Christmas Day, 1989, of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife.

For me, then as now, the end of Ceauşescu's brand of political and economic rule is something to celebrate. That doesn't mean that I have to approve of everything that has followed in its wake. It doesn't make me a fan of rampant capitalism to say that I hate Stalinism.

I won't go into detail, as readers are probably not interested in the internecine struggles of the far-left. But I can tell you that the group I was associated with in 1989, and still am, was far-left and called itself 'Trotskyist', but had recently come to the - to most people obvious but to the left decidedly awkward - conclusion that Russia and the Soviet bloc countries did not represent, in however 'deformed or degenerated' a way, an advance on capitalism. Indeed, we believed that in many ways they were - gasp! - regressive compared to capitalism.

Shortly after and obviously quite independent of this 'change of line' by a tiny British Trot group, the whole east European Stalinist edifice came crashing down.

Much of the left actually mourned this. Militant, forerunner of the Socialist Party, cheered Romanian miners, supporters of Ceauşescu's regime, when they were mobilised to beat up 'petty-bourgeois' students demonstrating for democracy. Socialist Action, with whom the recently deceased aide to Ken Livingstone Redmond O'Neill was involved, wrote in 1990:
"The destruction of at least some of the workers' states in Eastern Europe, and the imperialist reunification of Germany are both the greatest defeats suffered by the working class since World War 2..."
I think such attitudes were wrong, thought so then and think so now: 1989 was a great revolution, a liberation from a terrible tyranny.

OK, you might charge, I want my cake and eat it? Since 1989 it has been easier than ever for those who think capitalism is the best economic and political system humanity can devise to point to the great, failed 'socialist' experiment as negative proof they are right.

Of course, you can't sum up 200-odd years of history in a blogpost (what fool would try?), but my simple answer is: socialism is a creation of capitalism, it grows out of capitalism. There is nothing inevitable about it, but it is, in many ways, a natural development of capitalism. It certainly isn't possible in conditions of scarcity. Yet, for historic reasons, because socialism was attempted in the impoverished east rather than the affluent west, it failed. If you were to look for a simple explanation for this error, it would be the failure of the German revolution (yes, I'm going back almost 100 years) and the failure of the Communist parties of western Europe to stand by the Communist parties of the east, leaving the socialist 'experiment' isolated, and, during the Russian Civil War, besieged by capitalist powers.

What is very clear is that there can be no socialism without democracy.

All of this might seem completely whacko and beside the point to readers - who are possibly somewhat interested in my views on the sheltered wardens cuts or Barnet 'Future Shape' - but I thought I must, before 2009 is out, give a basic outline of my thinking on these matters; or, in a sense, excuse myself from the failure of east European communism.

On a personal note, if for no other reason than that it (almost) ended the horrendous Cold War, which cast a  shadow over my own life as I grew up, along with everyone else's, 1989 is a year I remember with relief and joy.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

No time to be cold

I hope the residents of East Barnet get their gas supply back soon, or at least an adequate supply of electric heaters - and enough power in the grid to keep them on! You can read about this story in the Barnet Press and in the Times series.

It probably wouldn't be the Christmas that cold East Barneteers would ask for, but can't Barnet council show some initiative and offer to put on Christmas meals and celebrations in some public place for those that want to come? It's a time to think big.

We hear about the shocking number of people these days who eat Christmas dinner alone, this could also be an occasion to make the case for more sociable Christmases - for those that want them.

The snow in Kent thwarted my plan to visit my dad today, but not before I'd stood around in chilly Charing Cross station for an hour. I should make it to my mum's tomorrow, however, as the railway line to Rochester is open.

Both my parents have freezing cold houses, but I am not good in the cold, I think I am part lizard. Merry Christmas!

Another year older, still not making much sense

Blimey, this year has flown by. It seems no time since I was wandering about in the late summer sunshine on Totteridge Lane and missing the astonishing Christmas lights; now they are back again!

Whatever I think about millionaires in general, the plutocrats of Totteridge do put on a good show, and I can only think that they do it for the benefit of passing motorists and bus passengers. If you can travel that way, go and have a look, they are worth the trip.

I spent my birthday mainly pursuing one of my favourite activities - eating. I had sushi and sake in a Japanese restaurant in Angel, cake and coffee in a Lebanese cafe off Oxford Street, and meze and wine in a Greek restaurant in Whetstone, the Lantern.

My mother lived 16 years in Greece, but I'm not an expert in the cuisine, language or anything, as, carelessly, I only visited her every three years or so.

Back home now, across ice, snow and fog. Have you noticed how the cold air is trapping horrible traffic fumes close to the ground, and how all but the main roads are still covered in ice?

And while I am in inconsequential rambling mode, have you noticed the fatal design flaw with the revamped King's Cross underground? Yes, that's right, you have to walk bleedin' miles to get to the trains.

Good night, all!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

2009: the whiff of woodsmoke

As another birthday hoves into view (yawn), I thought I would write a brief review of the year. I am calling 2009 the year of woodsmoke.

I got my first whiff of it at the Visteon Enfield occupation in April. Workers sacked by Visteon, a Ford spin-off company, occupied their former workplaces in Belfast and Enfield, and made an attempt at occupation in Basildon. In Enfield, with their union reps threatened with imprisonment, the workers agreed to leave the factory but immediately blockaded the factory entrances. They manned them 24 hours, kept warm at night by braziers, hence woodsmoke.

The plan was that if the company wanted to take machinery out they would have to honour the contracts they had made with the sacked workers regarding redundancy pay and pensions. The workers were also, but only half-heartedly, asking for jobs elsewhere in the Ford empire.

I visited Enfield Visteon several times, and on one occasion, a freezing cold night, with a stalwart of the Barnet sheltered housing wardens campaign who must remain nameless in order to avoid victimisation by his employer.

The Visteon workers won something (you can't imagine how good it feels to say that): their redundancy money. The company quickly struck a deal - better than people had hoped - when the Visteon workers threatened to go and talk about their case with workers at the profitable Ford factory in Bridgend.

However, the issue of pensions was left aside and today many of the former Visteon workers - now re-named Visteon pensioners - are battling to get the money they are due.

My second whiff of woodsmoke was during the Vestas campaign on the Isle of Wight. More than 400 workers at the Vestas wind turbine blade factory on the Isle of Wight faced the sack, when the company decided it could make bigger profits mothballing the factory and shifting its focus to Colorado.

A small group of workers, with some prompting from environmental and labour activists, occupied the administration suite of the factory, until made to leave by a court injunction. They too set up a blockade, although it was always much looser and more symbolic than that at Visteon. This was shown when the company finally moved the remaining blades out of the factory in September.

I helped to administer the Save Vestas blog and visited the Isle of Wight for one or two days every week, for two months, in order to meet the people involved in the campaign and understand the lie of the land.

An important feature of the Vestas campaign was the so-called Magic Roundabout - a camp of Vestas workers and supporters on a small traffic island in front of the Vestas factory. Braziers and woodsmoke loomed large in that experience. Below is a picture of me breaking up a pallet to feed into the brazier (this photo should destroy any chance I might ever have had of being elected to anything in Barnet).

We got a whiff of woodsmoke at the Climate Camp on Blackheath in the summer, but I personally only visited for one afternoon and evening just to see what all of the fuss was about.

When the Vestas campaign moved into a new phase (some of my friends will insist on this formulation), after the blades were removed, I thought I was done with woodsmoke for the year. But, no!

The remaining Magic Roundabout residents were recently evicted, and, together with some Climate Campers and others, some of them have been camping out in Trafalgar Square while the Climate Summit was on in Copenhagen, in order to draw people's attention to the issues.

I visited them on Monday 7 December, the day of the national sheltered housing wardens march, which set off from Trafalgar Square for Downing Street; and again last night, after some inevitable Friday-before-Christmas boozing.

The main feature of last night's visit was a brush with a security guard employed by Chubb - we had a friendly chat, once she'd cleared me off the base of Nelson's Column. I thought I would go up and have a look at the panels (one of them celebrating Nelson's sea battle off Copenhagen in 1801). I suspected that this is not allowed, but apparently it is - so long as you do it before 11pm. You can clamber about on the Landseer lions, etc, with impunity up until then!

I didn't stay long last night - it was too ruddy cold and a welcome N5 came along. But I did get that whiff of woodsmoke again - and, boy, does it cling! To hair, to clothes...

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Sheltered housing residents win in court

Read a report on the Times series website here.

The decisions by Barnet and Portsmouth councils to cut the wardens from sheltered housing schemes was taken without proper regard to the rights of the residents under the Disability Discrimination Act.

Judge Milwyn Jarman QC said:
“neither authority in my judgement had any or sufficient regard to such an impact upon those residents with disabilities as a separate group or to the need to recognise that the taking into account of those disabilities may involve treating disabled persons more favourably than others.”
According to the Times:
Solicitor for the claimants, Yvonne Hossack, said: “We're absolutely delighted for all the people of Barnet who have been affected by this.

“Luckily it will mean a happier Christmas for them.”
Congratulations to everyone who has taken part in the campaign to save the wardens. No doubt vigilance and more political campaigning will be needed as Barnet council shows no signs of being ready to be corrected, and will probably appeal the decision.

Guardian report of the decision here, linking it to the whole easyCouncil project.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

SIOE in Harrow - there WERE many more of us than them

Back safe and sound, thankfully, from Harrow where Stop Islamisation of Europe (SIOE) finally revealed themselves to be a tiny group of people with very much a minority interest, as they could only mobilise 20-odd people.

Still, they stood forlornly (valiantly, they will claim) in the car-park in front of Harrow Civic Centre for two hours in the cold, protected by several hundred police.

Harrow mosque had debated how to deal with this second provocative demonstration, and came down on the conservative side, calling for Muslims and anti-fascists not to counter-demonstrate.

Nonetheless, 200 or so of us counter-protestors were there, supplemented by stewards from the mosque coming to have a look, and knots of local young people. The mosque sent legal observers who were also at the disposal of the counter-protest. SIOE turned down the mosque's proposal to come and discuss their concerns about Islam (see report in Harrow Times). SIOE are revealed as an implacable and tiny group of worked-out Muslim haters.

So much for them. Thankfully, the larger, more disparate and harder to fathom English Defence League did not turn up to support SIOE. They have called a demonstration in Stoke for 23 January, where the BNP are strong. It's all getting nastier in the world of the far-right. Meantime, are we going to keep keeping our heads down?

I do believe that most people reject their views; why, then, are they being allowed to parade around the streets week in week out? I don't believe in banning them marching; I do believe in those who oppose them showing up to let them know how unwelcome they are.

I don't think SIOE will come back to Harrow. They have had their anti-mosque protest - and a very sorry affair it was. But they and other far-right groups can continue to flare up anywhere at any time, like a brushfire. Are we in a state to extinguish them?

Friday, 11 December 2009

There are many more of us than them - so get to Harrow on Sunday!

I have spent some time in the last fortnight building for a demonstration - or, rather, a counter-demonstration - to be held in Harrow this Sunday. In September, a small anti-Islamic group, Stop the Islamisation of Europe (SIOE), called a demonstration outside the newly built Harrow mosque (the old, frankly tiny mosque is next door). On that occasion, they did not organise very well and two dozen of them were kept by the police in a pub while a crowd of about 2,000 anti-SIOE protesters milled around in front of the mosque. The police told the SIOE to go home in the end.

The main story of that day was that the SIOE, who had tried to organise a provocative demonstration in a quiet suburb that none of them would visit ordinarily, were completely outnumbered and thought better of it. Unfortunately, the press relayed only pictures of some Muslim youth clashing with the police - which did happen, but which was very much a byproduct of the main events.

In the last couple of months, the English Defence League, a separate group from SIOE, but just as anti-Islam and swimming in the same far-right swamp, held a number of demonstrations in English towns. To the bystander these marches looked much like a group of football hooligans threatening to go on the rampage. EDL marchers gave Nazi salutes and abused Asian people.

Taking heart from this, the SIOE has decided to come back to Harrow again to whip up more trouble; their second demonstration is this Sunday afternoon.

I have been persuading trade unionists to join the counter-demonstration. The mosque is divided in their response; they are under a lot of pressure to rein in 'their' young people and are also telling anti-fascists to keep away.

I think that's a mistake. It is no good looking down at the pavement as the EDL and other far-right groups goose-step around our city centres. We tell ourselves that they are only a minority element; if that is so, why are they allowed to dominate public space in this way, week after week, in town after town? The sooner that all the private anti-racists get out and demonstrate their feelings in public, the sooner the EDL will get the message and go home.

I'm not advocating fighting the far-right, I'm advocating turning out to show that we outnumber them. If anyone wants to come to Harrow on Sunday, there are some more details on the Barnet TUC website:

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Medieval, bad for the poor, corrupt - the public verdict on Barnet easyCouncil

A quick report of the trade council stall at Barnet Christmas fair on Sunday 6 December. Sunny but, with the wind, very cold - I have a cough now. Never mind that.

As last year, we had a very good response from the fairgoing public. As last year, there was a lot of recognition of the issues around the council's 'reform' plans, which we were all calling 'Future Shape' last December and are calling 'easyCouncil' this December.

In the 12 months inbetween, we have seen few concrete proposals, but the council has spent a lot of money on consultants and created much anxiety, mainly among Barnet council staff but also among many residents.

We didn't find anyone on Sunday saying that the easyCouncil plan is a good idea. Here are some of the negative comments people made:
'It's medieval.'
'It will be bad for poorer areas.'
And, on the idea of fast-tracking planning applications for those who are prepared to pay more:
'That's bribery, isn't it?'
I couldn't have put it better myself.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Everyone deserves frills - say no to easyCouncil!

I've been coming up with all sorts of dignified slogans for the trades council stall in Barnet high street on Sunday 6 December. If you are there tomorrow you can admire my handiwork. But after an evening spent inhaling the fumes from marker pens and a home laminating kit, I am feeling light-headed and thought you might enjoy (yet again) this picture of someone who appreciates a frill or two or three.

When private business fishes in public service

Barnet trades council will have a stall in the high street in Barnet this Sunday 6 December during the Christmas fair (must check weather forecast), 11am to 4pm.

We had a stall last year (lovely, bright day) and attracted a lot of interest when we talked about Barnet council's Future Shape plan. A year later, to be blunt, the residents of Barnet are almost as in the dark about the council's plans as they were then.

In this year, a new word has been coined, 'easyCouncil', and Barnet council is it! We know that we might have to pay extra for more things in the future, but we still don't know what things and how much extra. Grandiose schemes to contract out almost all council services have foundered for want of a company prepared to do more than 'cherry pick' the easiest, plummest parts.

An acquaintance recently told me about his brother's experience weighing private medicine against the NHS. His brother believes in private medicine: he wants something done quickly, he's willing to pay. He took his daughter to a private hospital to have her earring removed as her ear had become infected. They offered to give her a general anaesthetic and remove it, for a large fee.

The man and his daughter passed an NHS hospital on the way home and popped into A&E for a second opinion - why not, it didn't cost anything. The doctor dabbed the girl's ear with antiseptic and removed the earring with pliers.

Private businesses exist to make profits, which is fair enough, that's the way many people make their living. But when private businesses get involved in providing public services, they only want to do the easy bits, and, since they are making money from the transaction, you can be sure that whatever they do could be done more cheaply 'in-house', ie, where a profit will not be creamed off.

That's not to say that the public sector doesn't need better management and so on, but achieving that is the challenge we should set for politicians - not how much can we outsource.

Friday, 4 December 2009

She wasn't as ill as we thought

About nine weeks ago my boyfriend's mother became very ill. She seemed to have some sort of alarmingly rapidly developing dementia, and she went into hospital. It turned out she 'only' had a bladder infection. Apparently, it is common when old people get this for it to have a devastating impact, making it hard for them to move about and making them delirious - if it isn't treated quickly.

Now the NHS has delivered her back to us, restored to health; she is able once more to drive everyone else around the twist (only joking). The episode goes to show how looking after old people at home, usually a job for amateurs, would be easier and safer if carers got a lot more professional training. Rather like new parents caring for an infant, carers learns on the job, but carers are probably much less well prepared than most new parents!